Gang conflicts and wars had increased throughout the 1970s as gangs fought to mark out their territory. A leading Auckland judge, Justice Mills, remarked in 1978 that ‘the gravity of many of the offences by members of gangs and what had become known as “gang warfare” was a great concern to everyone’. This ‘great concern’ reached its zenith in August 1979 in the small North Island town of Moerewa, where an event of such severity occurred that it can be seen to mark the second pivot point in New Zealand gang history.
The incident had its genesis in Auckland in October 1978 when an estimated 350 members from the country’s Black Power chapters converged on Otara to hold a convention. The local Stormtroopers considered Otara to be part of their turf, and local and outside chapters of the gang gathered peacefully outside the weekend-long meeting to show their displeasure at the Black Power’s intrusion into their territory. The gangs engaged in several conflicts in early 1979, but it was an assault by a Northland Black Power member on an Auckland Stormtrooper, in either late July or very early August of that year, that sparked the drive for a showdown. Regarding battles such as these between gangs, one Black Power leader, Mane Adams, said:
"Basically it was tit for tat. If you went and did a tit, you were waiting for the tat, and if the tat didn’t come back, well you know you won that battle sort of thing. It worked like that, sort of thing, eh, tit tat, tit tat. But tit tat leads to very serious consequences, if you don’t get on top of it."
On 3 August 1979, Stormtroopers from Auckland travelled north and joined members from Moerewa to find the local Black Power members in order to seek revenge. Initially unsuccessful in their search, many of the Auckland members returned home, leaving 40 or 50 primarily local Stormtroopers to drive to the Okaihau Hotel in further quest of Black Power. Failing again to find the enemy, they set about drinking. Next, in what the bar’s publican described as an abrupt 60-second outburst of destruction, the members uprooted pool tables and threw bottles through windows and a stool at the jukebox. Leaving the hotel and travelling through Ohaewai on their return to Moerewa, the gang was confronted by two members of the police, who were forced to retreat. A warning shot fired by one of the officers was not enough to save the police car from extensive damage.
The Stormtroopers then went on to the Moerewa Hotel where more police were called. The gang’s alcohol-fuelled frustration turned toward the only enemy they could find: the police. Prominent New Zealand academics Jane Kelsey and Warren Young suggest that animosity toward the police was bred as a response to aggressive police tactics by Team Policing Units in South Auckland in late 1978 and early 1979, and they also reported a ‘strong suggestion’ that the gang members themselves had called the authorities, presumably in an effort to provoke a confrontation. Similarly, amateur historian Charles O’Hara says that one of the gang encouraged a younger member to break a shop window – ‘so that the cops’ll come and then we’ll do them!’ Be that as it may, the publican is almost certain to have made a frantic call to authorities, and the two officers under siege at Ohaewai would also have raised the alarm with their colleagues.
Police were called in from throughout the region, but some were diverted to an unconnected armed robbery in Whangarei. Those who could respond immediately were heavily outnumbered, and attempts to persuade the gang to disperse were fruitless. Indeed, police efforts to confront the gang were described by one gang member as ‘suicidal’, and they were attacked with an assortment of makeshift missiles and weapons. Offering insight into the loyalty and adherence to the gang leaders’ commands, one of the Stormtroopers said later, ‘when we are told to hit, we hit’.
In the melee, the police officers became separated and were beaten. One described being held against a fence and kicked and punched by as many six gang members. Others fared even worse. A police van was set alight and several Stormtroopers attempted to throw Senior Sergeant Charles O’Hara, who was already injured, into the fire, yelling, ‘Burn the bastard!’ As the senior sergeant cried out, ‘Mercy, mercy’, he was rescued by battered colleagues and firefighters. During another offensive surge, the gang members began chanting, ‘Kill, kill!’ Sergeant Walter Douglas retrieved a .38 revolver from his glove box and fired several warning shots before shooting a gang member in the thigh. In different pockets of the hotel car park the battle continued. One gang member raided a fire truck and handed out the axes to use as weapons. Constable Ralph Davis was beaten to the ground and kicked unconscious. Constable Arthur Turton went to his rescue and found him choking on his own blood, but in his first attempt at rescue was driven off by Stormtroopers with whom he pleaded: ‘I yelled at them that they had killed a cop and to let me help him.’ Despite being hit with a steel rod, he and another police officer managed to drag the severely injured constable to safety. Davis did not regain consciousness for 48 hours and suffered depressed and linear fractures of the skull, a fractured cheekbone and the loss of eight teeth. Without medical treatment, his injuries were life-threatening.
Sergeant Walter Douglas attempted to reason with the gang’s leader to call a halt to the attack, but it is believed, by one witness at least, that a series of shotgun blasts from a local resident, alarmed by the lawlessness, signalled an end to the violence. Supported by an influx of reinforcements, police were able to arrest 28 members of the gang. The riot was over but the gang problem had begun in earnest.
This is an excerpt from my book Patched: the history of gangs in New Zealand. You will find references for the above quotes and facts in that. Go and buy the bloody thing, it's brilliant.